I don’t get it. I don’t doubt that what SpaceX is doing, and what surely other commercial companies will soon follow suit in doing, is important, and yes, even historical. But I seriously doubt that it has much to do with space “exploration.” More likely, space exploitation. Don’t get me wrong: space is, to some extent, a resource for humankind, and it is perfectly reasonable for us to exploit it. And history has certainly shown that the best way to accomplish that sort of task is to hand it to the private sector (of course, that’s not at all without potentially extremely serious drawbacks in and of itself, but that’s another story). What history has also clearly shown is that basic science and exploration are best done by scientists who work without the constraints of financial interests, and these days this means government funding (in Galileo’s time it was the government too, but in the form of some rich nobel family running the city).
When Cain optimistically says that SpaceX is an organization with “both the willingness and resources to push outward into space” I really wonder on what he bases his judgment. Why should a private enterprise push the human frontier into outer space? It’s uncharted and dangerous territory, and that’s not what private companies are in the business of doing: the risk is high, the likely short-term gain low. Take the example of medical research here on earth. Yes, we can all point toward the occasional new breakthrough drug developed by a pharmaceutical company. But most of the basic research necessary for those applications is actually done with NSF and NIH funded grants, usually in government labs or universities. Which, again, actually represents an obvious and logical division of labor between private and public, or between the applied and academic worlds (yes, I know, no such distinction is really sharp and without nuance, but there still is a distinction).
I think the current enthusiasm over SpaceX and what will follow ought to be at the least tempered by a sober pondering of a sad fact: NASA is no longer in the business of doing much of relevance in space. Don’t take my word for it, consider instead what former astronaut Story Musgrave recently said: “COTS [the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services which made SpaceX’s Dragon mission possible] is a default program which spun out of failure ... What is the space vision today? Where is the visionary? We’re not going anywhere... There is no where, there is no what, and there is no when. ... There is no Mars program, none. There is also no Moon program. There is no asteroid program.” Not exactly an enthusiastic endorsement of where we are arguably un-boldly not going, is it?
Please understand, this isn’t a condemnation of capitalism or of private enterprise. Nor is it a naive endorsement of the marvels of government programs (I’m aware, for instance, that the “discovery” of the Americas was a government-financed exploitative enterprise, though that was a few centuries ago, and the government in question was an absolute monarchy). It is a simple worry that basic research done in the public interest is highly unlikely to be carried out by companies whose main (only?) concern is the bottom line. I do not doubt that the people working for SpaceX are genuinely interested in what they do, and maybe some of them even really think that it has to do with space exploration. If so, I wish them good luck. But when I saw the images of the various Space Shuttles being flown all over the country to be turned into permanent museum pieces I couldn’t help feeling sad about a pioneering age coming to a premature end. (Indeed, one could argue that the Shuttle itself was already not at all about exploration, but reflective of an inward-looking turn at NASA, more and more concentrated on what can be done in orbit around Earth than on going after the big prizes out there.)
I also think it interesting that I could find very little in the way of critical commentary even among my fellow skeptics (maybe I didn’t look hard enough: anyone out there have relevant links?). Seems like we ought to have a discussion about these issues, perhaps even start a grassroots push nudging Congress to re-finance and re-conceive NASA to work in parallel with SpaceX and other private enterprises — not in the subordinate fashion that is unfolding under our very eyes, but following the model of the relationship between academic and private research’s division of labor. My friend Neil deGrasse Tyson has recently argued that we need new bold space exploration initiatives so that the next generation can dream big. I can quibble with his optimism, and perhaps I will in a future post. But his vision of space exploration is far more enticing than the kind of mining and tourism that is likely to develop during the next few years.